At a recent evening event at the The Continual Struggle: The American Freedom Movement and the Seeds of Social Change exhibit in Dallas, former President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush toured the artwork by the world-renowned artist Brian Washington. The 25-piece special exhibition at the George W. Bush Presidential Center documents the historical and ongoing struggle by African Americans against inequality and injustice. The celebrated collection will be on display in the Freedom Hall until March 27. After their tour of the collection, the former president and first lady attended panel discussions hosted by the Center. William A. Ampofo, a Vice President at Boeing and a sponsor for the event, stated that we must address what's at stake for the country if we don't continue to work towards social justice and equality and the need "to be intentional in what we do to make an impact."

The Continual Struggle has toured presidential libraries and museums around the country—including the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, TX; the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Grand Rapids, MI; and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta. Future plans include the collection touring at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston; William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, AR and the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, MO. Additional venues are also being considered.

President George W. Bush taking in the The Continual Struggle: The American Freedom Movement and the Seeds of Social Change. Image: courtesy of Brian Washington.

The headliner and highlight of the evening was a conversation with the artist, his father Al Washington, and members of The Brian Washington Company, who were in town from Cincinnati. The foundation promotes understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion through the gifted painter's artwork. The evening's moderator NBC 5’s News Anchor and Reporter Laura Harris introduced a conversation between the artist and his father that reflected on the vision of what started out as a passion project at Duke University and grew into a celebrated collection of paintings. “It reminds you that [we are standing] on the shoulders of the people who are in those pictures," remarked Harris, who also described the exhibit as breathtaking. "He has found a way to tell the story of decades for all of us to see it at one place and at one time. It’s truly incredible. It’s more than Black history. It is everyone’s history.”

During the conversation, Big Al (as he lovingly encouraged the audience to refer to him) revealed to guests his artist son’s health battle over the past few years with a rare autoimmune illness. The room was silent as he told the story of the struggle which he’d described earlier during a phone interview, crediting his wife, Brian’s mom, a registered nurse with saving Brian's life. Brian was working as an attorney at the time at the law firm Sidley Austin, where Barack and Michelle Obama worked. He flew home from Los Angeles to celebrate the holidays and became ill. “If there are any parents in the bunch tonight, I have to appeal to you. Take off any hat you might be wearing. I want you to think as a parent,” said “Big Al” as he asked the room to imagine the unimaginable of watching your adult child suffer from a chronic illness. “He came down with an illness called neurosarcoidosis. If anybody has scientific knowledge of it, please contact us. We seek expert advice. This is what symbolizes a continual struggle—one is art and the issues of civil rights, but the other is my son and our family. We’ve been up and we’ve been down, but Brian continues to fight. So when you see the artwork tonight, think about the real fight that we are in.”

The second panel highlighted three leaders in the Dallas community who are working for good change or as Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall encouraged the charge to create an environment where “every voice matters, and everybody belongs.” She was joined by Big Thought CEO Byron Sanders and Cullum Clark, director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative. 

Read our interview with Brian Washington to learn more about his creative process and viewpoint on the progress that’s been made and the challenges that remain.

Check out the hour long panel event on the “The Continual Struggle: Reflections on the Civil Rights Movement,” below.